A Tryst With Divine Spirits!

The literal meaning of Bhuta in Tulu, the predominant language of South Kanara district in coastal Karnataka – and my mother tongue incidentally – is ghost.

But the Bhutas of the ritual worship called Bhuta Kolathat take place annually in ancestral homes across the region, are not the restless spectres the word conjures up. They are divinities…deified cultural heroes, mythological figures and ancestral spirits that are considered Dhootas or ‘assistants’ to God, and who manifest his power and interpret His (or Her!) word. They are guardian angels of the community, their judges and their juries.

Bhuta Kola in Mangalore
Panjurli adding final touches at around 3am, just about when we decided we could stay no longer.

Preparation

This ritual, consisting of nightlong performances that include dancing, storytelling (in ballads) and rhythmic hypnotic drumming that alters the state of consciousness of the performers in which they pronounce oracular statements, is a remnant of a primitive Dravidian religion that continued even after old mythologies and beliefs merged with newer Puranic religions. It is still caste-centric. Performed by hereditary artistes from a particular community and patronised by fuedal land owners. But significantly, with the approval of the Brahmin priesthood. What could not be practically absorbed was cleverly given tacit approval. So a priest officiates at the beginning, and is present for the purification, but he has nothing to do with the ritual itself.

My connection with this ritual is more emotional than religious. Four of these shrines were littered around the property my grandfather acquired to build his tile factory, along with a sacred pond. There is no record of when they were built or who built them, but it was evident the local community had made them a part of their worship. So he adopted and propitiated these spirits and the rituals became the highlights of our summer holidays.

Bhuta Kola in Mangalore
Donning these very heavy silver ankle ornaments known as Gaggara, marks the start of the ritual, when the performer gets possessed by the spirit!
Bhuta Kola in Mangalore
Solid silver ornaments that will go back into a bank locker Monday morning. Devotion (and fear) we hope will keep these from getting swapped!
Bhuta Kola in Mangalore
Panjurli’s silver Head ornament and other jewellery. The sprigs are tender areca flowers.

Ornaments

There were two sets of deities. A brother-sister duo called Kallurti and Kalkuda, and male siblings – the boar faced Panjurli and the fearsome Guliga – said to be endowed with enormous powers to facilitate one’s connection with the supreme being, to grant wishes and to solve problems. But they weren’t always benign. Woe betide anyone who incurred their wrath…retribution could be swift and devastating, usually administered with fire or pestilence. Mom once jokingly attributed an electrical short circuit in my house (in Chennai, several hundred kilometers away!) to the fact that I didn’t believe anymore! The fear was an efficient tool to curb petty crimes obviously, all it took was for the accused to be brought to the shrine for a quick unburdening.

After mom’s passing, my two sisters and I decided to hand over the running of the shrines to a committee representing the local community and divest the land surrounding it. Our ever considerate parent, in anticipation of our disinterest, had already moved the shrines to a corner of the property with access directly from the main road. It has since taken on a life of its own. Its ‘parish’ has multiplied as evidenced by the impressive attendance at the annual festival. The celebration is grander today than the simple ritual I remember and includes free food served to over a thousand devotees.

The Kola

Last month, my older sister and I along with our spouses, went back ‘home‘ to attend a Kola after nine long years. The young performers did not know us nor our connection with the land. R and I were driving to Mysore early next morning, so we couldn’t stay for the second and grander half where the fiery Guliga chews up a live chicken. The fear and awe of watching that spectacle for the first time still makes me shudder! But what we did witness seemed tamer, less intense somehow. Perhaps I am biased. Or just older. Nothing ever feels the same here anymore.

PS: The thumbnail image is of a typical bronze Bhuta mask used for worship in a shrine, that I found in a shop on a market street in Mangalore. It now graces my living room wall.

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Hi, I'm Madhu. Wanderer. Travel blogger. Story teller. Bitten late and hard by the travel bug, I am on a mission to make up for lost time.

94 thoughts on “A Tryst With Divine Spirits!

  1. A visit to your blog is always like a wonderful adventure where i accumulate bits of treasure, from your well of knowledge . I learn so much from you Madhu, and my spirit blossoms more because of the nourishment you selflessly deliver with each posting your share. Always a delight to embrace your words and images! Have a lovely weekend my sister!

    1. Thank you Judy. I would have loved to stay for the Panjurli/ Guliga part of the ritual, but we really ran out of time. Hope I get to feature that next year.

  2. What enthralling images and descriptions, Madhu – I feel as though I was standing right there witnessing it all unfold! In the makeup and ornaments I see striking similarities with both Bali and unexpectedly, even Cantonese opera here in Hong Kong – save the floral decorations, Guliga and Panjurli would not look out of place in a local theatre. As always your family history is utterly fascinating… perhaps you could write a book or memoir of some sort!

    1. A memoir would be an ambitious project, but not for any lack of fodder. That place was unique even for Mangalore. A kind of a replica of a village created within the urban space, so we didn’t miss out on the benefits of both! We had bullock carts as well as motor cars!! Who knows…..perhaps someday 🙂 Thank you for your interest James.

  3. And I found someone in the blog world who belongs to my land… Yes I’m a bunt and belong to south canara too. Great to see somebody talking about our culture which is so very different and vibrant than other South Indian communities.. Yes we south canara ppl do believe in bootas and panjurli and kallurtis.. And that’s what keeps our community going. Me and my family make sure we attend the function every year.. My favourite has always been the chicken eating one.. Although it scares the shit out of me ;p

    Loved the post and could relate to each and every word. Thank you for writing this so beautifully.

    http://www.dwindowseat.wordpress.com

    1. It was mom’s wisdom in moving those shrines that has kept it alive. Not sure how we would have dealt with it ourselves! Glad you enjoyed it Elisa.

  4. What an interesting ritual Madhu and so colourful and fascinating! You took stunning shots! Thanks for sharing and for all the info. Great read. 😀 ♥ Hugs ♥

    1. I can understand how strange and yes ‘mind boggling’ all this must seem to you Kathryn. The urban young in India would probably react the same way! 🙂

      1. Steeped in culture and history. I wish I understood more of your culture. It has always fascinated me. I know I could read more but I look forward to your posts and some insight from you cause frankly I have no time for historical reading at this time. Thanks Madhu!

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